“Perilous Realms,” by Marjorie Burns | AIM Non-Fiction Review

This book was a source for one of my final papers, and now I include it as a non-fiction review.

Plot

Burns attempts to make the case that Tolkien synthesized Norse and Celtic mythologies in order to create a unique fantasy setting, along with inspirations from fairy tales. It proceeds from the abstract quality of inspiration to the specific details of Middle-Earth itself and how they relate to the Celto-Norse inspiration.

Author

Marjorie Burns does not provide a bio in this book, yet it was published by the University of Toronto, so there is credibility in that–especially if this book is in its third printing.

Themes

Burns’ major theme throughout the book is the difference between Celts and Norse. She discusses how Tolkien viewed them as stereotypically different, with the Celts being viewed as ethereal and magical, while the Norse were brutish and brooding. The Celts, of course, it turns out were just as brutish as the Norse were, but nonetheless it did not prevent Tolkien from creating his own “English” mythology based on these contradictions.

Burns even noted that Tolkien was a man of many contradictions, since in one example he was a monarchist, yet he gives most of the narrative power to the common hobbits Bilbo and Frodo. As such, that double-sidedness helps to establish contraries in Middle-Earth. Burns argues that those contradictions that are evidenced in the text are what made “Lord of the Rings” much more unique than its fantasy descendants.

A character that exemplifies these contradictions is Beorn, who shapeshifts from a man to a bear. On the one hand, he is hospitable to those who are kind, while brutal to those who trespass his territory, such as the goblins. Burns expands upon these contradictions by including the English conservativism and restraint with the Norse berserker motif that exist within Beorn’s character.

More characters include Galadriel and Shelob, who are directly inspired by the women of Celtic mythology. Galadriel was inspired by the Celtic river goddess but also the Morrigan, thus making her the most morally complex character in Middle-Earth. Shelob represents the monsters of Norse mythology while also representing a Celtic woman known for weaving a magical web.

Iceland is a prominent location in Tolkien’s inspiration, since it is the very place where Tolkien read about descriptions there. This is especially true when Tolkien includes large mountains and volcanoes in Middle-Earth–which are not features of the English landscape. Iceland is also the place where the Eddas were written, which were a major inspiration behind Middle-Earth. As for the descriptions of the landscape and the character of Bilbo, Tolkien took clear inspiration from William Morris’ sojourn through the Icelandic landscape. Just like Morris, Tolkien goes so far as to give the mountains and the trees more personification, by adding verbs that would be associated with human action to them.

As for the Celtic influences, the elves were an evident inspiration, since Celtic mythology includes stories of people who defy death. Another theme is the issue of gateways into the otherworld, which frequently occurs throughout the Lord of the Rings series. The first example is more metaphorical, since it involved Bilbo leaving his familiar Shire and venturing into the unknown, dangerous parts of Middle-Earth; and another example being the party entering Rivendell.

Of course, there is equally an emphasis on Norse influence, with the Balrog being a notable literary descendant of Surt, the Norse demon of fire. There is also a sense of code that is tied with characters who venture into this otherworld, which resembles the adventure of Odin sacrificing his human form for a noble cause. Another inspiration taken from the Norse were the images of monsters such as wolves and goblins.

There is also influence from Arthurian legend, though Christopher Snyder would argue in his book that Tolkien despised Arthurian legend since it reflected more of French mores rather than Anglo-Saxon ones. Whereas Burns would counter that Tolkien also despised Celtic imagery of supposed softness, yet Celtic imagery makes frequent appearances in his work.

Historical Context

Since England had been originally dwelt by the indigenous British Celts, and had later been settled by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, Tolkien deduced that English culture is a combination between Celtic and Germanic cultures, which allowed him license to combine Celtic and Norse mythologies in Middle-Earth.

At the time that Tolkien was writing Middle-Earth, England had been undergoing a sense of revivalism when it came to the old Germanic roots of Anglo-Saxon culture. Unfortunately, Anglo-Saxon legends and myths were not well-recorded, so Tolkien relied mostly on the Norse mythologies as a substitute since the Norse were also Germanic.

As such, Tolkien absolutely deplored Hitler’s misappropriation of Norse symbolism for his own agenda. In Tolkien’s writing, he also indicated how “too much” Norseness contributed to the over-masculinism of the orcs and the goblins.

As for the gender roles in Middle-Earth, Tolkien was clearly influenced by the Christian view, since he had a Christian education under the priest who fostered him after his mother’s death. Though they were tied to the domestic household, there were exceptions with Eowyn and Galadriel–though even they end up become “shuttered away” at the end.

Writing Style

Burns makes frequent mentions of the word choice that Tolkien used when trying to convey a point, whether it involved personifying the mountains or the number of epithets given to Odin that easily applied to Gandalf–and which ones did not. Along with providing snippets of interviews of Tolkien himself, it provides a lot of explanation as to what was he trying to accomplish with the text.

Real World Application

To see what makes a work Tolkienian means to look at how Tolkien himself managed to make sense of all of the contradictions that were in his personal and political life. These contradictions ease into compromises that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in the eyes of the reader.

Understanding Middle-Earth means understanding Celtic and Norse mythologies as well as the English identity. Of course, Burns tries to conclude about whether Celtic or Norse mythologies had the bigger influence on Tolkien’s writing. She ultimately concludes that Tolkien was less concerned with differences when it came to writing inspiration, rather how they related. So, she eventually argued that Tolkien would lean towards Norse mythology. Though there should be a point to be made about the relationship between different cultures and mythologies, in that they reveal how the human condition can be governed by their own beliefs, in that the gods they worship represent the pillars of their own society. Tolkien definitely tries to do that with the issue of kingship. So, in that sense, fiction reveals more about society than is normally expected.

Suggest This To…

  • Any student of Celtic or Old Norse Linguistics, since they may find that the subjects that they research are not as obscure as they think.
  • Anyone who is unfamiliar with Iceland but interested. There is an entire chapter dedicated to William Morse, who wrote extensively about the Icelandic landscape. If that inspired Tolkien, then it should inspire them too.
  • Any Tolkien fans, for obvious reasons.

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Burns, Marjorie. “Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.” 3rd Edition. University of Toronto Press. 2018.

Image Attribution: Micky Milkyway

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